Design is one of the most important aspect of any game. After all, you can make your game's visuals be a collection of squares as long as the gameplay is fun and accessible. Thus we kick off our breakdown of the IGF finalist list with what we think is the most important category: design. The games listed here are entertaining, compelling, and often extremely simple. The one thing they all have in common, though, is the fact that the developer focused their efforts into making games which stuck to and innovated the concepts they wanted to approach. Not a single element is out of place in any of these games.
Ever since its debut, we were certain that indie freeware title Super Crate Box would make it into the IGF as a finalist. Despite (or perhaps because of) its humble origins as a project by two students, it managed to wow us more than most games of 2010. With slick retro-styled visuals, simple but addicting gameplay, and a focus on creating what could be considered an "arcade classic," Vlambeer's little freeware game is an extremely strong contender as a design finalist. Much like Star Guard last year, not a single mechanic is out of place or extraneous, and everything contributes to the singular objective of having fun.
Super Crate Box revolves around the concept of gathering crates to score points. As the hole at the top of the screen belches out enemies, you gather these crates, furthering your progress but giving you a random weapon in the process. Sometimes it's a great weapon, like the flamethrower. Other times it's useless, like dual pistols or mines. The careful balancing of risk, reward, and skill keep Super Crate Box competitive and addictive, guaranteeing its place among the best designed games of IGF 2011. If you doubt us, you can always play it yourself! Super Crate Box is one of the few IGF contenders that is freely available as a freeware download.
The developer of the iPhone game Eliss is an interesting, artsy kind of fellow. His games are very simple, but challenge the player through increasingly mind-bending situations. He uses colors and jagged lines, relying more on smooth animation than traditional visual design. He's also an IGF finalist with the one-button game Faraway. Reminiscent of Kometen, Faraway is a casual game that offers a relaxing and rewarding arcade experience. And it only requires one free finger!
Faraway takes place in a procedurally-generated night sky, and you play as a comet swirling between each star. you must make your way to collections of stars and form constellations. However, there's one catch: you do all of this with only one button. As you fly by each star, you hold down the button to enter it's gravitational pull. This is normally used to slingshot to the groupings, but once you are at them, you also use it to draw each constellation how you want it. Peaceful, simple, and extremely addicting, Faraway is definitely a strong contender. It has the spark of good design: a single concept take to its extreme.
Anybody who didn't expect to see Minecraft in this category was deluding themselves. One of the most interesting games of 2010, Minecraft took three nominations (more than any other game) and is a very strong entry into each. It is not without controversy, however. After all, Minecraft has already sold over a million copies before even reaching retail status. The don't exactly need the money or recognition from an IGF award! That is neither here nor there, though. Minecraft is certainly one of the best designed games we have played in a while, and it focuses on the maximalist viewpoint. More features for everybody.
The reasons for being nominated are clear: procedural terrain, complex cave systems, the interactions between blocks, and the smooth (if a little dumb) enemy AI. The first is the most relevant, as the procedural generation is the major draw to the game. Minecraft is one of very few games that manages to make its randomly-generated terrain interesting, and exploring as much of the world as possible is a definite goal for many players. The complex crafting and item system is also a bonus, and it only gets better with each update. Finally, despite being relatively simple, the NPC AI manages to run smoothly even with plenty of characters on the screen, and it always poses a threat to the player.
Nidhogg is the only game on this list that does not have a clear release platform or schedule. While some may see this as a bad thing, there's a simple explanation for it. Nidhogg is a game that must be played as a group in an arcade setting. Anything less and the experience is diluted. It's making the rounds right now through various art exhibits, arcades, and gaming shows, and the consensus is that it is one of the most action-packed versus games ever made. Simple, smooth, and brutal, Nidhogg is much like Super Crate Box in that it returns to a time where people plinked countless quarters into tall neon machines. It's also one of the best designed games we've ever played.
Nidhogg's concept revolves around making your way through a castle. Unfortunately, there is also another player trying to do the same, which makes it rather difficult for you to accomplish your objective. You must beat the snot out of him, or stab him, before you can proceed. Just know that if he does the same to you then he takes your place! It's an immensely entertaining game that is good as both a spectator sport and as a versus game. Despite esoteric visuals and a niche soundtrack, Nidhogg manages to grab interest and never let go.
Roguelikes are known for being super complex and difficult to control, but Desktop Dungeons throws all that out the window. We've written about it before, and it's worth nothing that the game has only been getting better and better since then. With plenty of new features, a compelling metagame, and a low price (free), it's easy to tell why Desktop Dungeons made it as a finalist in design. After all, a game that merges the twin addictive loves of Solitaire and Nethack is a game to be reckoned with.
Controlled entirely through the mouse, Desktop Dungeons has you traveling through dungeons with the explicit goal of killing all the enemies. You must also explore the dungeon as well in order to find your quarry. Each session lasts only a few minutes, the game rewards you the more you play, and it always values skill over luck. Where you can get screwed by the random number generator in games like Angband, Desktop Dungeons manages to make the most difficult of rogue-likes a purely skill-based affair. This is why it is in design, and it's also why it is so compelling. A game where you don't lose simply because of a bad roll is a great one indeed!